SBC Life Articles

God’s Passion and Compassion for the Abused: Observations from Isaiah 1:17

Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow (Isaiah 1:17 NIV).

The tragedy of child abuse needs no magnification, but it is indeed magnified when God's people do not take appropriate action to prevent it, or worse, if they fail to take appropriate action when it is discovered in their midst. It seems that common sense, and a sense of common decency, would move us to address such things; but alas, we are not always sufficiently motivated by these. Consider, however, this well-known passage from Isaiah. While it does not identify the issue of child abuse directly, if we examine the situations surrounding its writing and look at the foundations supporting these commands, we will get a glimpse of the Lord's passion regarding this matter — and hopefully that glimpse will properly motivate us to action.

Relieve the Oppressed, Correct the Oppressor

In the opening of his famous declaration in Isaiah 1:17, the fiery prophet demanded that God's people embrace His standards of justice, but then he continued with three commands that naturally flowed out of God's standards of justice. First, he commanded the leaders and people of Judah to: encourage the oppressed (relieve, KJV) or correct the oppressor (HCSB).

There is some debate among scholars as to the correct translation of this phrase. Actually, there is good support for either translation, and in fact, both ideas may be satisfied in this command. To relieve the oppressed requires a proper legal response to the oppressor. And, to correct the oppressor is to relieve the oppressed.

When Isaiah presented this mandate, he could have had at least two different groups of oppressed people in mind. The first group was the poor who had been abused by the rich. He rebuked the leaders of Judah for plundering and crushing the poor (3:14, 15). In their day, the rich were illegally seizing the land of the poor, and when they attempted to respond by taking the rich landowners to court, the corrupt courts and civil leaders sided with the wealthy, leaving the poor with no legal recourse. Consequently, God in His concern and compassion for these victims stood as their advocate and boldly demanded relief from their oppressors.

In addition to the needs of the poor, God also showed a special concern for those who were victims of violent crimes. In verse 15, He accused the worshippers of raising bloodstained hands in prayer and accused some of shedding innocent blood.1 These references, and others, seem to picture a general condition of widespread violence in the land. Victims suffered at the hands of the ruthless, but because money could buy acquittal, the victims had no legal recourse. However, God was deeply concerned for those who suffered unjustly, so He stood in their defense and demanded relief.

Beyond the picture of general violence was the very specific travesty of child sacrifice to the pagan deity Molech, which had not only become acceptable in the land, but was practiced by their very own King Ahaz. The atrocious act defiled the very heart of God's direct commands, and in His response we see a glimpse of God's deep compassion for those who suffered mercilessly at the hands of adults who chose to ignore God's timeless commands and principles.

Through Isaiah, He boldly and passionately demanded relief for these innocent victims of violence, and appropriate action toward those who were guilty of oppressing them.

Defend the Helpless

The final two commands of verse 17 further illustrate God's loving concern for those who were supposed to be served by justice. Here, Isaiah commanded the people of Judah to defend the rights of the fatherless, plead the widow's cause.

God's focus on these two groups (orphans and widows) demonstrates both His concern for them and their particular plight during the time of Isaiah. According to the standards God instituted when He established the nation of Israel, each individual in Judah was due fair treatment and protection, regardless of sex or age.

Sadly, that protection broke down in the cases of orphans and widows. For generations, neighboring cultures had restricted the focus of their respect and protection to the men of the land. In these male-dominated societies, women and children were dependent upon the men for both food and protection. Apart from the security of a husband and father, widows and orphans were defenseless against the ravages of brutal human predators. In essence, they had no legal voice and were denied individual human rights.

But God knew of this potential neglect and abuse. As He prepared His people for life in Canaan, He was careful to specifically and intentionally address the needs of all who could be victimized, including aliens, women and children, and especially orphans and widows. He commanded the nation to provide for their needs and protect them from injustices.2 God's loving design transcended the male-dominated cultures of the day and granted these helpless ones a legal voice when faced with injustices.

Tragically, when Judah rejected God's design and embraced practices of neighboring cultures, God's concern for orphans and widows was ignored. What God warned against had become reality in Judah, and this unprotected group no longer had a legal voice — they were no longer protected and were defenseless under the attacks of the ruthless. They were no longer treated as precious and protected individuals as God viewed them, but rather viewed as disposable objects available to the wicked for personal exploitation.

And so God came to the aid of the victim, demanding protection for these orphans and widows. He called for the leaders and courts of the land to stand in defense of the helpless. And as they did, they would once more reflect the true nature of justice as God intended it to be.

These verses from Isaiah provide a glimpse into the heart and passion of a loving God who cares deeply for the helpless and oppressed. He called His people to return to the principles and application of true justice. He called on the leaders of Judah to relieve those who had been oppressed and to defend those who were legally helpless.

Why God's People Should Be Concerned

When God delivered Israel from Egypt, He took them into the wilderness and established a covenant with them in which He would view the people of Israel as "His people" and they would view Him as "their God." In this relationship, God would treat them as His own "treasured possessions," pouring His affection, blessings, and love upon them (Deuteronomy 7:6-9). They, in turn, were to focus their love and obedient faithfulness upon Him (Deuteronomy 6:1-9). In this unique and loving relationship, God identified them as His special, chosen people (Deuteronomy 7:6). Their deliverance from slavery and very existence as a nation was a demonstration of the special relationship they shared. The nature of the Jewish people was that they had been lovingly chosen.

Furthermore, in God's instruction to His people He indicated that because of this special and unique relationship, they were to be like Him. God identified Himself as holy, and so He called His people to be like Him in holiness (Leviticus 11:44; 19:2). The Lord identified several areas that He viewed as "detestable," and He expected His chosen ones to view these same things as detestable. God's deliverance from bondage and the establishment of this special relationship should have moved God's people to eagerly embrace His concerns and values.

Finally, God expected His people to reflect the nature of God to the neighboring nations. When God instructed His people to obey His commands, He told them that the neighboring nations would see their obedience and realize that they belonged to God (Deuteronomy 28:9-10). He also pointed out that if they obeyed and followed Him, other nations would see and respect their wisdom (Deuteronomy 4:5-8). This pointed directly to God, for it was the Lord who gave them wise commands to follow. The people's actions were supposed to send a message to the world about God's greatness and love.

Because of His nature and relationship with Judah, God's people were supposed to reflect His concern in these areas of relief for the oppressed and defense of the helpless. When the world looked at their behavior, it should have viewed a living illustration of God's love and compassion in each of these areas.

So, how does this apply to our responsibilities as Christians in today's world? Does God expect us to reflect His priorities in the same manner?

When we look to the New Testament, we find some striking similarities and expectations. It teaches that through the blood of Christ, God has delivered us from cruel bondage to sin (Romans 6:15-18) and established a "new covenant" with us (Luke 22:20). Those who have been miraculously delivered from this slavery to sin are also called a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God (1 Peter 2:9, NIV).

Also, in the same way that Judah was to embrace God's priorities, we, too, are to embrace His priorities. He instructed us to be holy as He is holy (1 Peter 1:16) and to love each other because He loved us and because He is love (1 John 4:7-8). God calls His chosen ones to hate what is evil, cling to what is good (Romans 12:9), and to seek first His Kingdom (Matthew 6:33). God still expects His chosen people to share His concerns and embrace His priorities.

Finally, in addition to our status as His chosen people and our responsibility to embrace His priorities, we too are to reflect His nature to the world around us. When the lost observe our behavior, they should see an accurate picture of God's glorious character (1 Peter 2:12). When they watch us relate to each other, they should learn of the Lord's love (John 13:34-35; 17:23). When the world views our marriages, it should see a picture of the relationship that exists between Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:22-33).

As God's people, our priorities, actions, and affections should serve as a consistent reflection to the lost of Who He is and what He is like.

God has indeed delivered us from bitter slavery and brought us into a loving relationship with Him. Because of this incomparable love and grace, we should respond by eagerly embracing His concerns and actively reflecting His nature.


God clearly expects His people today to embrace His desires and reflect His nature. But if God's people fail to address these issues, we convey a false message and project a false image of God to the lost.

Our Father is still concerned for those who are victims of violence and oppression. He remains opposed to the destruction brought through sexual immorality and perversion. He is just as resolved in His concern for the helpless today as when He indicted Judah for their failure in this regard. But if we fail to call on our people and churches to take an active role in preventing immorality and perversion, how can we justify our passionate claims that we follow the Lord?

God still expects the oppressor to be brought to justice. He does not equate forgiveness with the absolute elimination of consequences. Yet, if we remain silent in our churches, justifying inactivity with an anemic and truncated reference to "forgiveness," our claims of loving and obeying God ring hollow.

Furthermore, if we remain silent, the watching world falsely concludes from our inactivity that God is not really concerned about these issues. They can draw inaccurate, but understandable, conclusions that God is a cold, cruel, distant, and perhaps even powerless being who deserves no one's worship or allegiance.

On the other hand, when we take an active role in preventing child abuse, when we take appropriate action with those in our churches who are guilty of such evil, when we embrace the victims and actively assist in their healing, then the watching world has the opportunity to view an accurate reflection of God — then they can rightly conclude that we serve a God who is strong, compassionate, caring, just, and fully worthy of all honor and glory.


1 See Isaiah 59:7 and Micah 7:2
2 See Exodus 22:22-24 and Deuteronomy 14:29; 24:17-21


Adapted from Sinful Silence: When Christians Neglect Their Civic Duty by Ken Connor and John Revell.

    About the Author

  • John Revell